Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Review: The Hunger Games

It's been a while since I wrote a review, and I haven't reviewed anything to do with the Post Apocalypse sub-genre since last year, for various reasons (mostly because I haven't actually read anything in the area since last year.

A sort out of my bookshelves has brought the Hunger Games Trilogy blinking into the light and I've got round to starting to read them as a result. Having just finished the first book (and started the second), it seems the right time to put down some thoughts.

The books are set in a near future dystopia, after a disaster reduces North America to a series of feuding nations that slowly is consolidated into an empire called Panem (which I take to be derived from Pan America - which doesn't matter but I find interesting) after a rebellious war that led to the rulers using weapons of mass destruction against the area east of the Andirondack Mountains; dubbed in the series the Thirteenth Sector. The price of defeat is the brutal Hunger Games, a contest to the death between lottery chosen 'tributes' from across the sectors. A boy and a girl are chosen from each area, giving twenty four warriors in total. In this case, our heroine, Katniss, volunteers when her twelve year old sister is selected, knowing that she will die if she goes into the Games.

After this the book evolves as you'd expect and there are few surprises in store; though that may be my being a bit older than the target audience with a greater reading experience. This isn't to diminish the story, there are some great set pieces and it remains entertaining throughout, albeit a little strange in places; I was unsure towards the end if the Games took place in an arena that gets outfitted every year or if they are held out in a different part of Panem completely. I initially thought it was the latter but my certainty slipped throughout the novel, I think because of the proximity of the Capitol to the where the Games were held. Even with science that unpicks scars to return skin to a smooth, virginal state (how undignified), it stretched my suspension of disbelief that Peeta, the principle love interest and her fellow tribute from Sector 12, apparently at death's door, survives the trip back to the Capitol if it was any great distance away, even with souped up sci-fi transport.

Despite this confusion the action involved is well delivered and thought out. The section with the supplies is particularly well conceived and it was heartening to read a book by a female author, with a female protagonist, that actually has her fight and suffer injuries without a back up plan or a get out of jail free card. As a slight aside, one of my bugbears about a lot of SF and fantasy fiction is where female protagonists are actually 'Mary Sues' suffering a malady that in the end is nothing of the sort. The fact that Katniss goes through so much pain, actually makes her struggle that much realer.

The prose is simple but effective and the characterisation is strong; in fact most of the characters carry the book well and have clear voices, though its a shame that so few of the other tributes receive proper development. In particular the 'Career Tributes' from the richer sectors are reduced to caricatures, defined almost solely by arrogance and a desire for vengeance.

In addition, whilst I can understand why the story remains so focused on Katniss, I would have liked some cut away scenes to show how the rest of her team coped with the Games, or even a separate strand to show the effect of it on the general populace. The route the author takes reinforces the loneliness and isolation of the Games for the contestant but it being told that people in the Capitol were 'excited' and 'betting' on the outcome became quite old, quite quickly without anything to reinforce it.

World Building

The world that Collins has built is an intriguing one, if a little obvious. You can see the truth of her statement that it grew out the discrepancies between reality TV and footage of child soldiers from the very beginning. She draws a clear line between the rich but artificial Capitol, who use science to live in the lap of luxury, and the purposefully impoverished and uneducated people of the various Sectors, who even have to keep ways of boosting their meagre survival rations secret for fear of punishment if hunting or foraging becomes common knowledge. It is interesting to note how differently the occupying (I can think of no other way of describing them) troops operate in the two sectors where the reader gets a description of ordinary life; with the Peacekeepers being far more brutal in the agricultural Sector 11 than they are in Katniss' Sector 12. Despite this it seems odd that the break between past and present has been so complete and that there are no pieces of machinery lying around waiting to be fixed, for example.

Within the story, the reality TV angle is the one that really caught my attention, as it felt like the fresher part; although it's also the part which catches the story as a product of the 2000s and I suspect runs the risk of dating the story quite quickly, especially if the fashion for that kind of show ends. Nonetheless it provides a fascinating snapshot of where we are now, both media and image obsessed, cruising on cheap sentimentality and schmaltz. The fact that this ends up working in our characters' favour really says nothing more than the fact that humans like a hard luck story and a good romance, no matter how fake it is.

Given that the capital of Panem lies west of the Rockies, I find some of the geographical placement very interesting; the majority of the subject sectors lie between two mountain ranges (it also suggests that the rulers in the Capitol are aware that the mountains will block most of whatever weapon they used as an object lesson, lessening the effect it would have on their own lives and the people they wanted to cow into submission. Whilst I haven't got too far into Catching Fire yet, I really hope that the story will show us the remains of Sector 13, as it seems like a natural development for the story to go there.

Comparisons

I think there's a certain inevitability in the comparisons with Battle Royale, the Japanese film which similarly maroons children and puts them on an island full of weapons. I think it misses the greater part of the reasons for the contests in each case, seeing only the 'kids killing each other' aspect (in which case you might as well rope Lord of the Flies in and make a menage a trois, especially as all three works use violence to explore the wider world in a microcosm.

Taken on its own Hunger Games is an enjoyable read, a good piece of young adult fiction and whilst its a shame it doesn't go further than that, it might be for the best that it doesn't. It has good characters, a decent plot and doesn't flinch from the horror implicit in the story. It's a strong piece of post apocalyptic fiction that raises enough questions to make me want to read its sequels. Honestly I don't think I can ask for much more.